It was the morning of April 24, 2013—a day that may have as much emotional resonance in Bangladesh as September 11, 2001, does in the United States.
Many workers were worried. Cracks were rippling down the walls of Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The building was making strange noises. “Managers hit workers with sticks to force them into the factory that day,” said Judy Gearhart, the executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, at a recent event, organized by the Forum and the Workers’ Rights Consortium, focusing on Rana Plaza.
Soon after the air conditioning clicked on, the building collapsed. Some 1,134 workers—most of whom were young women—were trapped and killed. Another 2,500 were injured.
Rana Plaza was one of thousands of buildings in Bangladesh that had been converted into a multipurpose factory. The collapse was one of the largest industrial accidents in history. It triggered mass protests and unprecedented international scrutiny.
A basic inequity was exposed. Inside factories like Rana, workers labored long hours, often in unsafe conditions, earning an average of approximately $50 a month—less than the cost of just one of the pairs of pants they were assembling for sale in Europe and the United States.
Before Rana Plaza, efforts by workers to organize were crushed by an alliance between the state and local employers. Keeping factories humming was considered to be in the national interest. Garments constitute 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports.
A special police force was established to monitor industrial areas. Soon thereafter, Aminul Islam, a labor activist, was tortured to death while in the custody of state security services.
The message was clear—not just to workers but to chief purchasing officers in firms around the globe. As the consulting firm McKinsey and Company wrote at the time in a report on manufacturing, “the light is starting to shine ever brighter on Bangladesh.”
So in the aftermath of Rana Plaza—the deadliest in a series of fatal factory collapses and fires—did anything change?
Improving Factory Safety
“There has been a big shift in public perception since Rana,” said Arun Devnath, head of English News at Bangladesh News 24. “Factory safety is no longer considered a Western luxury.”
Under a new agreement, signed after the tragedy, more than 200 global firms joined a legally binding pact, known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, obligating them to source from Bangladeshi factories that met basic safety criteria. The accord implemented a massive safety inspection and remediation program, covering factories where more than 2.5 million workers are employed. More than 1,000 of the factories covered by the agreement have sufficiently addressed 90 percent or more of the safety issues raised in their places of work, representatives of the accord report.
Most experts on Bangladeshi workers’ rights recognize that the accord’s achievements have been dramatic.
Yet there is a growing concern about the future of the accord, which will be restructured this year and funded for only three more years. Without the moral outrage and attention that came with the Rana Plaza catastrophe, some firms have been reluctant to renew their commitment.
A new report by the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights discusses a complementary challenge: gaps in protections. Subcontractors often help larger factories with their workloads, the report says, but they do not have a direct relationship with the global firms—and therefore are not covered by the accord or other agreements. At least 3,000 of these subcontractors may exist, the report says. (New York University's estimate for remediating safety issues in factories not covered by international agreements is $1.2 billion.)
A law increasing the minimum wage for workers to approximately $65 a month was passed on January 1, 2014. But inflation has wiped out any gains for workers. Indeed, Penn State researcher Mark Anner has found that workers in Bangladesh have actually experienced a 6.47 percent drop in wages in real terms since Rana Plaza.
The minimum wage would have to triple to provide a living wage, union leaders say.
What would such a change mean for consumers in the West? Not much, say some analysts.
An increase in cost of 12 to 25 cents on each T-shirt sold by H&M, the Swedish clothing giant, would be enough to provide a living wage for the workers who make its clothes, according to an analysis by Sasja Beslik, head of the Sustainable Finance team at Nordea Wealth Management.
Other analysts say that Bangladesh’s manufacturing formula depends on having the lowest labor costs in the world, making near-term action in this area difficult.
Despite some changes in the aftermath of Rana’s collapse, the playbook adopted by global brands regarding workers’ rights concerns is mostly the same. Something Workers’ Rights Consortium Executive Director Scott Nova wrote in 2011 remains largely true today. “This is the contradiction at the heart of the contemporary apparel industry: The brands and retailers say they want to eliminate sweatshop conditions, but demand prices from their contractors that are so low that the only way they can stay in business is to keep abusing their workers.”
Realizing the Rights to Associate, Assemble, Organize, and Bargain Collectively
In his report, Mark Anner describes progress in this area as “limited,” pointing to the formation of 228 new workers unions in the 18 months after Rana Plaza collapsed. But, as Anner also notes, “violations of workers’ rights to form unions, bargain, and strike increased by 11.96 percent between 2012 and 2015.”
Despite an uptick in interest among workers in forming and joining unions after the factory collapse, the state and local employers have continued their efforts to intimidate and imprison workers who organize or strike. In December 2016, for example, 1,500 workers were fired, and the police shot rubber bullets at those who went on strike to demand a tripling of wages.
Honoring Victims by Deepening Commitment
The advances in building safety, largely realized through the accord, are a major step in the right direction in Bangladesh. But it is only a first step and many more are needed. Rightfully honoring the victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy would mean sustaining and deepening improvements in the future of work for garment workers there and in other producing countries.